Dear Brother Suhaib,
You asked me to write to you about the Bureau of Prisons’ ban on religious books and our successful lawsuit to stop it, masha’llah. Last Ramadan, I had the honor of meeting you at the 96th Street Mosque (The Islamic Center of New York), where you gave the most memorable khutbah I have heard in the two years since I have been a Muslim. I was the brother with dreadlocks who asked you if I would have to cut them, to which you replied, “You’re all right.” The reason it has taken me so long to write this message is because it may very well be the most important e-mail of my “new” life. Insha’llah, I want to make sure I get it right.
I have attached the links to the New York Times and USA Today articles about the book ban in the federal prisons, and while I realize that that is specifically what you asked about, I pray that Almighty Allah, subhan wa t’ala, may free up a few minutes of your valuable time to please hear my story.
I must admit my intention right up front: to ask your wise counsel and advice. I am only two years into my submission to Allah (swt) and I desperately need some direction. The reason I went to federal prison in the first place is because I made fake documents so that people with bad credit or off-the-books income could buy a home or a car at a reasonable interest rate. This was long before I knew anything about riba, and Allah’s prohibition of it. I am no angel—and I beg Allah’s forgiveness for my mistakes—but because I come from a modest upbringing, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for downtrodden people just trying to get a fair shake.
The story of how Allah (swt) intervened in my life and turned me toward Islam is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me, but it is at the same time overwhelming and confusing, and I’m virtually alone in learning this entirely new way of living. I also struggle to find where I belong in this world and precisely what Allah (swt) put me here to do.
In addition to the lawsuit, I spent my time in prison writing a book entitled, “I Tried to Enter Heaven With a Fake ID.” In this ongoing work, insha’llah, I tell my life story by subtly quoting hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) that apply to everything I did wrong; and how my crime and very painful punishment led me to the right path.
My late father was an atheist and my mother is basically agnostic. However, they taught me right from wrong and always encouraged me to succeed, although neither one of them were college educated or particularly successful. Many of my childhood friends and classmates were Jewish, and I always admired their cohesiveness (and prosperity) as a community, as I competed with them in school, sport and play. I never had that kind of connection to a community, religious, ethnic or otherwise, and besides being invited to an occasional Bar Mitzvah, I was never made to feel like I had any real connection to theirs either. In terms of finding a wife, finding money for college, finding a job, finding business startup capital, or even finding God, I was literally on my own.
Because we were so short of money, I sacrificed study time to work a part-time job while I was in high school. After my parents’ divorce, my mother couldn’t afford to buy me the kinds of clothing “everybody else” wore. I had been going to school in my older brother’s discount store hand-me-downs. As a scrawny, non-athletic, out-of-style black kid who was always either studying or working, not only was I unpopular, but I was so busy I never had time to see the guidance counselor and didn’t learn the college application process until the last minute.
The month I graduated high school, I went to work full-time and decided to stay in that job and take 12 credits at night when I started college in the fall. My logic was that if I could keep up the insane schedule of full-time work and full-time school, live in the lower Manhattan dorm and walk to my clerical job on Wall Street, I would graduate with a bachelor’s in finance and 4 years of experience. I received financial aid to pay for my first year tuition, but I had to borrow to pay for room and board. Things started out well enough: I managed a 3.1 GPA, learned valuable computer skills at work and enjoyed my first taste of life on my own, away from home. And then I filed my first tax return…and that was the beginning of the end.
In determining my continued eligibility for TAP and Pell Grants, the Reagan Administration decided to combine my $5-an-hour income with my mother’s meager secretarial salary. They required that I be at least 24 years old, or have lived away from home for two full years, in order to be considered an “independent student.” My own income, if considered by itself, was low enough that I would have still been eligible for financial aid. But for some inexplicable reason, the government assumes that it takes at least two years from the time you’ve moved out of your parents’ home for you to support yourself, even if your parents never had the money to pay your tuition, room and board to begin with.
I learned the hard way that this government penalizes young people who work their way through college straight out of high school. They lumped my mother’s income in with mine even though I was no longer her dependent, even though she was living paycheck-to-paycheck singlehandedly raising my older brother (who has autism) and my younger sister, and even though she could spare nothing to contribute to my tuition. Thus, they refused to give me independent status and promptly canceled all my grants. However, they did not hesitate to offer me every loan under the sun. With no time to change course, I kept working full-time, going to school full-time, living in the dorm and making my grades, but needless to say I plunged deeper into debt.
In 1987, I got a slightly better paying job at a large investment firm that offered tuition reimbursement. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there long enough to receive the benefit because, when the stock market crashed that October, I was one of the first ones fired. But being a scrawny teenage geek from the ghetto, longing for acceptance and popularity, I had ran and bought a car with practically my first paycheck. My long list of social insecurities included the mindset that no attractive woman would ever want me without a nice ride.
I had good credit and, like most college students, was inundated with credit cards and loan offers at an age when I hadn’t exactly mastered fiscal responsibility. I easily got a car loan and bought a used car—a Porsche—at a public auction for a mere $5000. In no time, I discovered why it was so cheap. Nonetheless, all the breakdowns and problems I had with this lemon of a car did not stop law enforcement from assuming I paid a fortune for it…or stole it. Almost everywhere I went I got pulled over, often for no reason, and asked “Whose car is this?” And those were the “good” cops.
The “bad” cops routinely stopped me, interrogated me, ordered me out of the car, sometimes down on the ground, and searched for drugs and guns I never had. Sometimes they drew their guns on me and even cuffed me while they ransacked my car with no probable cause whatsoever. No matter how polite, respectful and cooperative I was, the officer who saw a black kid driving a Porsche was almost never satisfied with my lack of an arrest record. Occasionally they would apologize for the inconvenience and let me go, but nine times out of ten they would end up being so embarrassed (or frustrated) when they didn’t find anything, that they would justify their harassment by writing me a slew of tickets for everything they could think of.
The combination of my not knowing my rights and not having enough sick days and vacation days to take off from work for each and every court appearance had devastating consequences for my once-pristine driving record. When I appeared, I usually beat the charge because either the officer didn’t show up, or he couldn’t explain why he had given me so many frivolous tickets.
As I mentioned, I ended up losing my job when the market crashed, so although I suddenly had plenty of free time to go to court, I ran out of money to pay tickets. Ultimately, my license got suspended.
The other by-product of losing my job was that I could no longer afford school without going deep into student loan debt. I chose to find another job and postpone school—a decision I deeply regretted until I read the hadith where the Prophet (saw) said: “Know that if the people were to unite to do you some benefit they could benefit you only with what God had recorded for you and that if they were to unite to do you some injury they could injure you only with what God had recorded for you. The pens are withdrawn and the pages are dry.” (Ahmad, Tirmidhi).
I didn’t know it then, but that hadith turned out to be the prophetic explanation for what happened next.
In the interest of your time—and again I thank you for reading this far—I’m giving you the short version of the story and leaving out significant details like how I became a stockbroker and how I later left New York to work for law firms in Washington DC and ultimately Atlanta. As glamorous as all of that may sound, it turned out to be anything but. I quickly discovered that I was not cut out for a straight-commission sales job where I basically had to trick people into buying bad investments in order to earn a living. My boss said I lacked a “killer instinct.” He was right. Long before I ever picked up a Qur’an, I still knew something about balancing the scales when doing business.
Suffice it to say, by 1990 I was an office temp living hand to mouth, working when there was work, struggling when there wasn’t. With bad credit and no degree I couldn’t get the type of work that was consistent enough and paid well enough for me to afford New York rent, bills, and loan payments at the same time. I couldn’t get back in school without getting current on my student loans. I couldn’t get loan forbearance as long as I was working. And I couldn’t stop working or I would lose my apartment and my car. I think it was Darth Vader who said, “The circle is now complete.”
The Porsche finally broke down as I couldn’t afford the maintenance. So I bought a $900 Nissan…and drove to work every day on a wing and a prayer with my suspended license. It turned out that I needed more than $900 to pay all my outstanding tickets. In my flawed reasoning, it made more sense to be able to get to work, save my money and figure the rest out later, than to pay all the fines and have a clean license but no car. One day my luck ran out and I got detained for driving with a suspended license. And just when I thought nothing worse could happen, shortly after I got the car back, the timing belt broke and the engine repairs were more than the car was worth.
And that’s when I met a man who made fake birth certificates.
As you might have guessed, I not only got him to make me one, but I eventually learned how to make them myself using Photoshop. I also used my training in spreadsheets and graphics to make fake paycheck stubs, bank statements, W2s and utility bills—everything I needed to get real ID in any name I wanted. At the same time, I read several books on the credit system and learned how to fool the credit bureaus and establish a brand-new credit file in a totally made-up name. I also learned how to legally establish A-1 credit from scratch in 60 days. Within 90 days of walking out of the DMV in Atlanta with a real driver’s license in my alias name, I was driving off the lot of a BMW dealership. Six months later I bought a 1-bedroom condominium in downtown Washington DC for just under $35,000. By 2005 that same property was worth $250,000.
Throughout the “housing boom” I built excellent credit in at least three additional aliases; got more than 2 million dollars in mortgages on several more investment properties; renovated them; rented them out; watched their values skyrocket; cashed out hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity; and helped over a thousand people, many of whom were single mothers, do much of the same.
And then someone snitched.
I was hungover from a night of wine, women and drugs on the winter morning in 2006 when more than a dozen federal agents in body armor busted down my apartment door and pointed automatic weapons in my tearful, fearful face. Even though there was found to be no victim in my case, no one’s identity had been stolen and I was current on the payments on my 5 mortgages and 2 cars, I was held without bond for 3 months in a maximum security jail until I pleaded guilty to Aggravated Identity Theft. My plea agreement required me to forfeit everything I owned to the federal government. I later found out that the law I violated—the Real ID Act—was passed only a month before my “friend” set me up in a sting operation. Even though manufacturing false documents in the privacy of your own home is, of course, morally fraudulent, it did not become a federal felony offense until November 2005.
I don’t know if the nervous breakdown I suffered in jail was from the withdrawal from all the drugs and alcohol I had done, or the sudden loss of over a million dollars in wealth and goods, or being marched around in leg irons and thrown into population with hundreds of violent criminals. It was in the psychiatric ward of that jail that my cellmate gave me a copy of An-Nawawi’s 40 Hadith. While I awaited sentencing, I read the English translation of the Holy Qur’an from cover to cover. I picked up every book on Islam that I could find, and the more I read, the more my chaotic life in this world began to make sense. The more I learned, the more I realized that my arrest was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.
In jail, I struggled to learn the prayers in proper Arabic. Some of my brothers ridiculed me when I did wudhu the wrong way or said the prayers in English. With difficulty, but with the help of Allah (swt), I joined them in fasting for my first Ramadan. I remember nearly passing out on the night when our prayers included a particularly lengthy surah. I soon realized that the strength to keep standing, for what seemed like an eternity, could not have come from me alone. By the mercy of Allah, I took shahada on November 9, 2006. Alhamdulillah.
Although the federal guideline sentence for Transferring False ID Documents was 6 months, I got sentenced to a year and a half for Aggravated Identity Theft because the fake ID I made for an informant contained a drivers license number that happened to be some real person’s Social Security number. It didn’t matter that the name on the ID was fictitious, that it didn’t match the number and that it could never have caused harm to the actual person who the number belonged to. I never had the intention of harming anyone, but somehow that never came up in court. However, by Allah’s mercy, I was sent to a minimum-security camp for white-collar offenders. Had I only gotten six months, I would have gone home before the Prison Chapel Library Project…before the Bureau of Prisons ordered “radical” religious books to be removed from every federal prison in the United States.
On Memorial day in 2007, me and a hundred stunned inmates watched the chaplain at FCI Otisville go into our chapel library and throw every book that was not on a pre-approved “book list” into garbage bags. The feds had quietly instituted a policy designed to prevent so-called “radicalism” in the prisons by only allowing inmates to read specific books that the Bureau deemed “safe.” Although it was obvious who their intended target was, the Bureau, unable legally to single out Muslims, implemented their policy by taking books away from every religious denomination, in every chapel in every federal prison.
The strange (and probably unintended) result was outrage among the Jewish and Christian communities…and a deafening silence among Muslims. It was an orthodox Jewish inmate who approached me and asked if I would join them in a class-action lawsuit. His reasoning was that any legal action by a group of inmates that didn’t include a representative of the Muslim community would not be valid. I agreed to take part, but my Muslim brothers at the camp (all 4 of them), although well-meaning, were largely unenthusiastic. They even cautioned that I might end up being manipulated and exploited by the other groups. I give all praise to Allah (swt) for giving me courage that I really didn’t have before, to overcome the overwhelming fear of “putting myself out there” and join the People of the Book in the fight to get everyone’s religious books back.
On or about June 10, 2007, a Jewish inmate, a Christian inmate and myself testified by phone in a teleconference hearing before US District Court Judge Laura T. Swain that our First Amendment rights were being violated. That day, the Associated Press picked up the story and I read my own testimony in the next day’s USA Today. As expected, our initial motion to stop the book removal was rejected on the grounds that we had not exhausted every possible administrative remedy. However, the administrators, at the Bureau in general and our prison in particular, thwarted our every effort to resolve the problem through “normal” channels. Then the Jews made a few phone calls.
One influential inmate was able to get his contacts at the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison to represent us, pro-bono, in a class-action lawsuit. As the story got national attention, very powerful Jewish and Christian organizations, including Evangelical groups with national prison ministries and even Members of Congress in their corner, got involved in condemning the book ban. During several of the visits from our team at Paul, Weiss, I was asked if I knew of any Muslim organizations who could be contacted. I didn’t even have an Imam I could call. But by the time I got the idea to write to Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota—the only US congressman of Muslim faith—the Bureau backed down. Mere weeks before my release, the chaplains of every US federal prison were ordered to return the books they had taken from the chapel libraries. Alhamdulillah.
Part of the pressure on the Bureau came from the media coverage of the story. That September, New York Times writer Laurie Goodstein offered to interview the three of us. The Jewish inmate had been released to a halfway house, and the Christian inmate objected to the presence of prison staff in the room monitoring the phone call and declined to be interviewed. So I ended up being the only one.
While the article she wrote was factually accurate, Ms. Goodstein reported only a fraction of my answers to her questions. I tried to convey to her how the Bureau’s actions disproportionately affected Muslims because we had so few books to begin with. I am a living example of someone who discovered Islam from books in a prison chapel library. While other religions had visits and services from priests, rabbis and pastors, we never had an imam from the outside to come and speak to us. Were it not for those books, I don’t know where I would be right now…or in the Hereafter.
It was not only The Qur’an and hadith, but books by authors like Abul a’la Mawdudi and Ahmad Deedat that explained Islam in a way that I could understand and appreciate. I now know that Allah (swt) guides whom He wants to the right path. My concern was for all the incarcerated brothers and sisters who would be far less able to study their deen if the Bureau had won; and even more for those who, like me, were lost in this dunya and might never have gotten that one book that would open their mind, for the first time, to the One True Path to salvation.
Going forward, I am of course hopeful and full of faith in Allah’s promise. I openly testify that there is no God but Allah, and that Muhammad is his servant and messenger. I offer salat 5 times daily, mistakes and all, astaghfirullah. I struggle to fast for Ramadan, and although this last one was only my third time, it is getting easier. I could do a better job of showing up for jum’aa consistently, but each time I do I make sure I give zakat, even if it’s only a few bucks. I don’t have anyone I know at the New York Islamic Center, and I’ve found myself wandering around to different masjids in search of a place I can call home. I have the intention of traveling to Mecca, someday, for hajj, insha’llah. I’m just not sure what to do next.
I am 41 years old, single with no children, and extremely interested (if not desperate) to find a wife. The trouble is, I have no job and I live at home with my 75-year-old mother and autistic older brother, where I sleep in the living room. I have 2 more years of Probation and I go to my meetings once a week. By Allah’s mercy, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder by the Bureau of Prisons and I receive Food Stamps and a modest disability income from SSI. Allah (swt) also allowed me to be accepted into a government program called VESID, which provides college funding for people with disabilities. However, even with all of these miraculous blessings, I am not sure how best to use them, or exactly what career I will be allowed to pursue with a felony conviction for, of all things, Aggravated Identity Theft. There was no victim, no fine, and no restitution in my criminal case, but to mainstream America I’m still the scum of the earth. When I was a full-time college student and a registered stockbroker with a squeaky clean record, I still incurred the wrath, envy and disdain of everyone from my neighbors, co-workers and employers to the very people I counted on to serve and protect me. Why should I expect America to treat me any better now that I’m a Muslim?
I graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, maintained a B average at Pace University for 2 years at night, and VESID’s own Cognitive Assessment test indicated that I have an IQ of 130. I’ve worked for E.F. Hutton, The Scudder Funds, Goldman Sachs and The Equitable, just to name a few. I held an NASD Series 7 General Securities license, Series 6 Mutual Funds license and was a licensed insurance agent in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia for more than a decade (I actually let those licenses expire when I became a real estate investor). I have 20 years of experience between Wall Street and Washington’s K Street, where I did legal document production of everything from prospectuses and litigation to US Patent applications, at firms like Weil, Gotshal & Manges, Baker & McKenzie and Finnegan, Henderson—some of the largest in the world. I can type 70 words per minute and am proficient in the most commonly used word processing, spreadsheet and graphics software, including the current versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Photoshop. I can read and write basic French, and with a few refresher courses, I believe I can achieve fluency. And I trust that this lengthy message to you is at least an adequate indicator of my ability to coherently express myself in written English. While I understand I have an obligation as a Muslim to conduct myself with modesty and humility, I refuse to allow the agents of the Shaitan to convince me that I have no more to offer the world than minimum-wage menial labor. They have been trying to convince me I’m worthless since long before I ever committed a crime.
I have always wanted to write as a career, and now, insha’llah, I have made my life story my life’s work. But I don’t want to bet my entire future on getting my book published. The book itself is, among other things, a 300-page testimonial of how riba might have ruined my life—but ultimately led to my seeking salvation in the Afterlife, insha’llah. I attempt to show how not only the crises in my life, but the totality of the global economic crisis, can be directly attributed to the charging of interest. I am of the sincere belief that in the coming years, America and much of the Western world will be forced to rethink the way in which money is leant. “A time is coming to mankind when only the receiver of usury will remain and if he does not receive it, some of its dust will reach him.” (Ahmad, Abu Dawud, Nasai, Ibn Majah).
The intention of my work, besides to tell a true story, is to change how people look at finance—and to make the subtle suggestion, without preaching, that the world ought to consider how much better things might be if every money lender became more of a partner with their borrowers, rather than their slavemaster.
With only the few books on the subject that I have been able to get my hands on and the few websites I have been able to find, I have begun to study the burgeoning industry of Shariah-compliant financial products, or Islamic Finance. I have yet to find an American college with any kind of degree program in this field, nor any training programs offered by Islamic credit unions and institutions that offer these types of interest-free financial products. However, based on my experience in financial sales, my love of Islam and my love of people and their pursuits in halal trade, I honestly believe that my true calling is to be a broker, or at least an advocate, of these kinds of investments. If I could in some way combine writing and computer graphics with this occupation, I feel in my heart that it would be the absolute best possible application of the talents and abilities that Allah (swt) has blessed me with. Besides our ultimate aspiration to the Gardens of Paradise, insha’llah, isn’t one of the goals of the global Muslim community to put every believer to work doing that which he does best?
I beg not for your financial charity or even a job with your organization, but only that you please write back and let me know what I need to be doing. With the background I’ve described to you, do you think I have any realistic chance of getting into the industry of Shariah Finance? If not, what type of work do you think I may be suited for? If so, to whom do I turn for guidance? What should I study? What degree do I need? Do I need to learn Arabic? If the most important thing after salat is gainful employment, how do I find work that aligns with my deen? And the most personally humiliating question of all: As a 41 year old college student, on disability and food stamps, living at home with my mother, at least a year away from a degree, a good paying job, self-sufficiency and enough income to support a family, how do I find a wife who will accept me as a work-in-progress?
“There will dawn a time over people when the destruction of a man will be at the hands of his wife, parents, and children. They will humiliate him because of his poverty and will make such demands which will induce him to engage in such activities (to gain more money) which will finally destroy his Deen.” (Baihaqi)
As a convicted felon, I worry about spending the rest of my life in America in a position of vocational—and consequently financial—disadvantage. But as a Muslim, I am of the understanding that a believer is forgiven for his past sins the moment Allah accepts his shahada. At the age of 21, I was a penny-stockbroker in a boiler-room brokerage firm. At 38, I had over a million dollars in assets and a six-figure net worth. By 40, I was earning 17 ½ cents an hour working in the boiler room of a prison power plant.
Among the many punishments for my crime was a catastrophic loss of wealth and goods…a test, I learned from The Qur’an, that Allah puts to those he loves. My biggest fear on leaving prison, a year ago, was that I would return to society in a state of need instead of a position of strength. When I was helping people with bad credit commit fraud by changing their identity and obtaining low-rate mortgages and other things they might never have been able to do, I was, for the first time in my life, using nearly all my skills simultaneously in an enterprise that changed people’s lives and generated the highest income I had ever earned. But all I was really doing was enabling the riba-rich predatory lenders at the center of the credit crisis to put even more people deeper in debt. All I ever wanted to do was use the talents and abilities Allah (swt) blessed me with to help people economically, and in so doing earn enough income to support a wife and family.
At the time I agreed to participate in the prison lawsuit, I followed my prayers with many a supplication to Allah (swt) for strength and guidance. No longer able to give charity with money (in a meaningful amount), I wanted to fulfill my obligation of sadaqa in a way that would be accepted by Allah (swt). I expressed the intention to do something, within my severely limited power, that would be of benefit to as many believers as possible. I hope I did the right thing. I understand that a Muslim should not make a show of his charitable giving, and I ask Allah’s forgiveness if I was in any way haughty or boastful in attempting to convey my story to you.
May Allah bless you with a double reward for the wonderful work you do.